The hardest part about your trip: the VISA!
June 8, 1999 The Moscow Times
Dante’s Inferno in Visa Line
By Daisy Sindelar
Anyone who has ever wasted time wondering what form his or her eternal damnation
might take has obviously never stood in a Russian visa line. These lines
appear to be a very close approximation of Hell. Consider the elements: The
rooms are always very hot and overcrowded. You get poked at with elbows and
other sharp objects.
Eternity becomes a knowable concept. And when you finally make it to the
front of the line, it is only to be informed by one of the Devil’s haughty
minions speaking to you from behind bulletproof glass that your sins (bringing
photographs on glossy paper rather than matte, perhaps) will require you
to be sent straight back to the end to begin the process again.
It’s a small price to pay, and good preparation, for getting to live in Russia
for another month or year. And since everyone goes through it, it’s also
a great back-from-the-trenches conversation topic, which I expect Hell also
is. My most recent visa experience took place in Tallinn, which is where
everyone seems to go these days and where nearly all the kinks in the system
have been worked out. The Russian Embassy is in the heart of the city’s charming
Old Town, runs with a certain nod to logic, and even has the working hours
posted on the door.
The few snafus that remain are a complete lack of ventilation, refusal to
answer the phone, an electronic door system that apparently only opens when
a critical mass of humanity has gathered on either side of it, and the tendency
among a fairly cheerless staff to resort to people-moving techniques based
loosely on cattle herding, although I’m pleased to report they stop short
of the prod.
One of the particular barbs of the visa experience is that no two are alike.
There is, therefore, no particular advantage to having experience. No matter
how many things you anticipate going wrong, it is the one thing you don’t
anticipate that will get you in the end. Indeed, in my many years of varied
visa adventures only one constant has ever held true, and that is that somewhere
in the room there will be evangelical Christians talking about how they
personally introduced a Russian alcoholic to Jesus. Tallinn was no exception.
So a tale of salvation wafted through the steamy room as lines of applicants,
mostly Russian, gradually melted from an orderly one-behind-the-other formation
to a teeming mass of side-bysiders waiting for each other to blink. Cries
of “chto w khamstvo?”, the mantra of the visa line, filled the air as people
brazenly cut to the front, and gimlet eyes were leveled at the tour guide
managers who stuffed 50 applications at a time through the slot. The room
grew hotter still; tempers grew even shorter. One of the women behind the
glass definitely had a forked tail.
Things took a turn for the worse when an elderly woman waiting in line put
her hand to her heart and began to moan. At first she seemed to be merely
despairing over her chances of ever receiving a visa, which essentially made
her no different than anyone else. But it quickly became clear that something
much worse was happening, she was obviously ill.
The room was packed to bursting; there was no easy escape route if in fact
she chose to give up her place in line, which she looked as though she would
rather collapse than do. The people around her shrugged with impatience.
The Christians had fallen silent, and it wasn’t immediately clear if Jesus
was around either. The room had taken on a dynamic of its own, mean, feverish
and wholly focused on the prize.
Russia got the last laugh, though, as it often does. After the requisite
breath of skepticism had passed, the crowd spontaneously leapt into communal
action, with women muscling through the masses to proffer up nitroglycerin
tablets and water. A man yanked open a window, letting in a medicinal gust
of breathable air. Chairs were evacuated to give her a place to lie down;
there actually was a doctor in the house, a capable-looking young woman who
gave up her place in line to go and sternly watch over the woman. Even Beelzebub
got into the spirit of things, rooting through her pile of visas and quickly
passing the elderly woman’s through.
For the final act, an embassy employee came out and called an ambulance.
Within minutes, the room’s dynamic had entirely changed: Russia at Its Best.
Even this, I think, is not inconsistent with the nature of Hell, a little
glimpse of paradise before the curtain drops, to remind you of what you’re